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University of Missouri

Ancient Rome’s Digital Signatures

A historic agreement brings ancient Roman artifacts to MU.

Pelike pots may have served as storage for liquids.

Pelike pots may have served as storage for liquids.

More than two millennia have passed since the black-gloss pottery Johanna Hobratschk measures and photographs has seen service in the rituals and dining rooms of Rome. Hobratschk, a doctoral student in art history and archaeology, and other scholars at MU are the first to study the ancient pots, which workers unearthed in the late 19th century while clearing space for government buildings in Italy’s capital city. The pots’ bases often bear potters’ telltale finger marks. Makers left these unique signatures when they picked up pieces and dipped them in vats of clay slurry that, in the heat of the firing oven, turned the characteristic shiny black. “Seeing that connection to a living person is really cool,” Hobratschk says. “People behave so similarly, then and now.”

Everyday uses for pots may remain constant, but the agreement that sent them from Italy to MU is a first. About 100,000 ancient artifacts found during construction have been stored, largely untouched, in the Capitoline Museums, the world’s main repository of ancient Roman artifacts. New pieces continue to surface with new construction projects, and the museum has a large backlog, says Alex Barker, director of MU’s Museum of Art and Archaeology. Barker says this is a rare moment when Italy is sharing artifacts across borders with collaborators who will ease the backlog, generate new knowledge of ancient Rome and start databases to which scholars worldwide will contribute. Enel Green Power North America is funding the project.

The Capitoline chose MU as its first international collaborator because it possesses faculty with expertise in cultural history, an accredited museum with a strong antiquities collection and a nuclear reactor designed for research that can make highly specialized measurements. The shipment of 249 pots is likely a first installment of many in years to come, which could include items of glass, metal and marble.

Assorted Roman pottery

The maker’s touch is apparent on these ancient Roman pots, clockwise from top left: oinochoe (wine jug), plate, Pelike pots, Genucilia plate.

But clay pots are the perfect starting place, says Susan Langdon, professor and chair of the Department of Art History and Archaeology. “We can watch the pulse of life through pots. Pottery is durable, people make it constantly, and everyone needs it for cooking, serving and storage.” Ancient Romans used certain pot types in households and others in graves or shrines. “So, once we understand the shapes, they can tell a lot about what’s going on in an archaeological site.”

Pottery and its fashions are portable, Langdon says. “We can see when people carry them to a new area and how influences flow from one group to another.” That’s a big question for scholars when it comes to the spread of Roman culture in Italy as its power grew during fifth to first centuries B.C.

Enter Michael Glascock and the University of Missouri Research Reactor Center. During the past three decades, Glascock, a senior research scientist at the center, has conducted archaeometry analysis of about 150,000 artifacts. That’s about one-half of all the items ever studied using neutron activation analysis, or NAA. In contrast to radiocarbon dating, which estimates an artifact’s age, NAA determines its origin. To conduct NAA of the clay pots, Glascock drills into the broken edge of a shard to extract clay powder while preserving the sample’s surface. By irradiating the powder with neutrons and then measuring its gamma-ray emissions, he can determine more than 30 of the clay’s elements — its chemical fingerprint. Of the 65 Roman pots analyzed so far, he has identified three chemical fingerprints that are similar and two others that are distinct, indicating the clays may come from multiple areas. Few museums permit such tests, but it’s the only way to add this valuable science to the scholarship.

Roman cup fragment

Researchers at Mizzou drilled holes in this cup fragment and performed neutron activation analysis on the resulting dust to help determine the pot’s geographic origin.

Langdon says old theories held up black-gloss pottery as high-quality tableware made by slaves for elites. But more recent scholars are taking into account the pots’ origins (city of Rome and its wide distribution throughout Italy) and varying quality (everyday ware versus fine china). They theorize that middle and lower classes also may have used black-gloss across Italy. “The kind of studies we’re doing can help reveal the range of pots made in Rome, the variety of shape and fineness, and the composition of the clay. This information can be compared with similar pots found elsewhere,” Langdon says.

In the end, the information will help scholars chart how and when the indigenous people of Italy assimilated Roman culture, Langdon says. “Did people living outside the city of Rome think of black-gloss pottery as something from the center, or was it just a new style? If people are producing the same stuff across Italy, it suggests that maybe ideas are not just percolating down and people are adapting — the Romanization of Italy looks more complex than we once thought.”